News From the Field

Human Rights Watch, Artists and Activists Allege Continued Labor Abuses at Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

According to a report released on February 10, 2015, by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the abuse of migrant workers engaged in the construction of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s Abu Dhabi satellite on Saadiyat Island remains a serious problem. While the report indicates some progress in governmental labor policies, the eighty-two page document discusses withheld wages, deficient housing, and deportation of hundreds of striking workers amid a number of labor offenses in 2014 that remain unresolved.

HRW issued its first investigation of migrant worker maltreatment in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2009, before developers even broke ground on the massive complex (begun 2011; completion expected 2017). Designed by architect Frank Gehry, the museum is to be the centerpiece of the island’s cultural district, which will also house satellites of the Louvre museum and New York University.

Construction developers recruited the thousands of migrant workers involved with the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and India, offering them justly managed, well-compensated jobs. But according to a 2013 investigative report in the French newsweekly Le Point, migrants work in unsafe environments for up to twenty-two hours a day and live in overcrowded rooms without air conditioning, and food is scarce. Workers are frequently threatened by their employers, and those who attempt to defend their rights are routinely arrested and deported.

The latest HRW report indicates that these conditions remain widespread, and that low wages (often far less than the promised USD 190 per month), leading to massive recruitment fee debts accrued by workers—alongside the withholding of passports by employers—effectively renders their employment indentured servitude.

In a statement issued on February 16 following the HRW report, artist-activist group Gulf Labor noted that the Guggenheim recently hired public relations firm Brunswick Group—with clients including Hewlett-Packard and Panasonic, companies that have also been accused of labor violations—to respond to issues raised by human rights organizations with an “image management” approach.

Gulf Labor and HRW are joined by a number of activist groups in calling for fair labor practices in the UAE, including Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF) and Gulf Labor Coalition, an international coalition of artists that includes GULF and Occupy Museums.

HRW alleges that labor policies instated by the UAE government and the 2010 Joint Statement on Workers’ Rights shared by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Tourism Development Investment Company (TDIC) remain unfulfilled. TDIC, the state-owned developer responsible for much of the project, released a statement regarding the HRW report on Tuesday, February 10, rejecting its findings.

Both the HRW report and Gulf Labor have separately called for all cultural institutions building on Saadiyat Island to seek uniform and enforceable human rights protections and, specifically, for the Guggenheim Foundation to increase the transparency of its activities in the UAE and to appoint an independent monitor to inspect work sites and worker housing.

To read the HRW reports concerning the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, visit For the Gulf Labor report and more information on artist and activist responses to the situation on Saadiyat Island, visit


Chelsea Butkowski is an editorial intern at Afterimage and a senior at the State University of New York at Geneseo majoring in communication and art history.

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